5 Essential Practices of Great Second-in-Commands

I served as the third-in-command in a large branch of a fairly dynamic service organization.  When I recently told my leader that I was transferring to serve as the second-in-command at a different branch of the same service organisation, he told me “Go show them what it means to be a first follower.”  I was so inspired by that advice that I decided to do some research into what it takes to be a great “first-follower.”

As it turns out, entire forests have been sacrificed providing the paper that has been used to describe what it takes to be a great leader.  However, relatively scant words have been written about what it takes to be a great second-in-command (2IC).  That’s a shame because, as many wise thinkers have observed, if you want to be a great leader, you must first become a great follower.

A 2IC, however, is both leader and follower, striking a delicate balance between the two.  In my research, I’ve unearthed five essential practices that 2IC’s must master.

[Note:  For simplicity, this article refers to the 2IC as second-in-command to the CEO; but the following 5 practices are equally applicable to the number two leader of a division, department, or any organization for that matter.]

1.  Help the CEO Clarify Their Own Role

The first key to a 2IC’s success is to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the CEO and the 2IC are clearly defined at the outset.  This will reduce the tendency for the CEO to meddle in the 2IC’s kitchen.

Quite often, whether deliberately or by statistical likelihood, 2IC’s tend to have a substantially different combination of strengths than the CEO.  This is quite fortunate because, as countless studies have revealed, greatest successes come from accentuating personal strengths and working around weaknesses.

To effectively define each other’s scope of responsibilities the 2IC needs to help the CEO see their unique contribution to the organization—where the CEO’s strengths can have the greatest impact.  Once the CEO’s role is defined, the role of the 2IC becomes more obvious.  “Know your leader” said Lee Kitson, an exceptional 2IC at Marshall Aerospace Canada.  “Know their strengths and weaknesses and then do what you can to plug in the gaps.”

Anytime the CEO begins to stray back into the fray of the 2IC’s role, the 2IC needs to refocus the CEO on the higher-value work that only the CEO can do.  Only then will the CEO truly let go of the day-to-day stuff.

2.  Be A Model of Effective Delegation

Most CEO’s aren’t particularly good delegators, especially if they are the company founder.  CEO’s who have been in the role through many years of growth likely started out managing everything from defining the strategy to ordering paper for the photocopier.  It can be incredibly difficult for them to let go of responsibilities and to continuously recalibrate to higher level work.  2IC’s can provide tremendous value to both the CEO and the rest of the organization by modeling how to delegate effectively.

Larry Huber, head of Marshall Aerospace Canada, once remarked to me: “I don’t even have to delegate to Lee… he just keeps taking stuff off my plate.”  That’s a wonderful compliment that any 2IC would like to receive, but if they don’t enable their own subordinates to do the same for them, more balls will be dropped than juggled.

In addition to taking work away from the CEO which doesn’t align with the CEO’s unique role and value to the company, 2IC’s must constantly push responsibilities and decision-making authority to the lowest possible level of the organization. (My last article Micro-Promotions details a strategy for doing just that.)

3.  Report Back Regularly

Taking work off the CEO’s plate only works if the 2IC regularly reports back to the CEO on how things are going.  Failing to do so invites—even compels—the CEO to poke around in the 2IC’s kitchen looking for closure.  Failing to report back on an assignment is like telling someone part of a story without sharing the ending.  It creates a psychological tension that provokes the listener to seek resolution.

[bctt tweet=”Failing to report back on an assignment is like telling someone part of a story without sharing the ending.” via=”no”]

Reporting regularly on assignments closes the communication loop so that the person ultimately accountable for the outcome isn’t left dangling.  It reduces the anxiety that naturally comes with the CEO role and allows them more mental capacity to focus on the areas where they can provide the greatest value.

That being said, a 2IC can do himself a disservice by reporting too much information to the CEO.  Providing too many details can likewise invite the CEO to look too hard into areas where they shouldn’t.  The 2IC’s report should simply

  1. remind the CEO of the problem,
  2. present the solution that has been implemented,
  3. provide a status update on the progress of the solution,
  4. give an estimated time when the solution will be completed, and
  5. inform the CEO that the 2IC will only provide another status update on this issue if there are any major problems.

4.  Assert Your Viewpoint, But Champion The Decision

Any CEO worth their salt doesn’t want their 2IC to be a “yes man.”  In many cases, the very reason the 2IC role exists is to provide a different perspective that won’t get drowned out by the psychological volume of the CEO’s opinion.  Doing so effectively requires a high degree of emotional intelligence and maturity.

Business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggests that when 2IC’s push back, they should let the CEO know that they are on their side and supportive of what they are trying to achieve, they just have some suggestions about how they should proceed.

Once the 2IC offers their opinion for the CEO to consider, they must recognize when the time for debate is over.  Kitson gives this advice:

“In meetings, it’s important to voice your opinion, but then I make sure to read my leader to know when he’s made a decision and it’s time to get on board with it. And at that point, it can’t be just talk, it’s got to be followed by action. You’ve got to get on board like it was your own decision.”

Following this pattern can, perhaps counterintuitively, actually strengthen a 2IC’s credibility and authority within the organization.  When others see how unified the CEO and 2IC are, they will assume that when the 2IC gives direction, it’s coming from the CEO.

5.  Be Loyal

When I was a consultant at Deloitte I reported to a fairly strong-headed, charismatic partner.  Another, somewhat quirky partner seconded me do some work for him which I didn’t particularly enjoy.  I mentioned this to the partner that I reported to, hoping he would commiserate with my having to work with this quirky guy.  He stopped me in my tracks when he said “Geoffrey is my partner, and I’m not going to badmouth him.”  I never forgot that lesson in loyalty and I hope to live up to that same standard.

2IC’s need to show the same level of unfailing loyalty to their CEO if they are going to earn the trust of the CEO and the rest of the employees.  Demonstrating that kind of loyalty will squash any inkling employees may have to play the 2IC against the CEO or vice versa.

Like many aspects of the 2IC’s role, there’s a counterbalance to being loyal that 2IC’s must handle with care.  CEO’s are the most isolated from critical feedback—feedback that they often need to identify their blindspots.  Great 2IC’s have such a strong relationship with their CEO that when they bring a potential blindspot to the CEO’s attention, the CEO knows that it is motivated by a sincere desire to see the CEO succeed.

[bctt tweet=”Exceptional 2IC’s show the rest of the organization what it means to be a great follower.” via=”no”]

2IC: A Leadership Incubator

It takes a rare breed to be a great 2IC.  Some might say it’s a thankless job.  2IC’s must check their ego at the door to show the rest of the organization what it takes to be a great follower.

Whether 2IC’s aspire to eventually move into the top job or not, there is no question that being a great 2IC provides a fantastic training ground for it.


For more information on this topic, check out our Delegation & Empowerment Workshop!


9 Responses

  1. I was a little late in reading it but got around to it. Great article. Your right it can be a thankless job to be a second in command.

  2. This is a great article on the relationship and needs for a strong 1 and 2 dynamic! Transparency, communication loyalty and trust!

  3. Great article. Very Usefull information. I am starting in 2ic position and read the article in less than 8 hours before my new role. Thanks for all the usefull tips. Kind regards. (South africa)

  4. Very informative & helps me to be effective defines my ..What I do &
    …How I do it ..As I have just been given this role yesterday.
    Much appreciated.

  5. Using this in Bible Study Series entitled Profiles of Support. Very practical information we can use to demonstrate our personal belief system.

    1. Awesome, glad you are using the insights from this article in support of a higher purpose Natasha!

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